Scotland's efforts at the World Cup Finals have been frustrating, but their best team never made it that far. Cris Freddi looks back on their narrow exit in 1961

Czechoslovakia were probably annoyed to be in this play-off. After beating the Scots 4-0 at home in their World Cup qualifying group, they led 2-1 at Hampden before Denis Law scored twice, including the winner with only seven minutes left. That left the two teams level on points – the only other team in the group, Ire­land, lost every game. To make matters worse, Czechoslovakia’s captain and left-back Ladislav Novak picked up an injury that was still keeping him out.

Still, they could take heart from Scotland’s own absentees. Goalkeeper Bill Brown, who’d helped Tot­tenham win the Double, was injured, and the opposition wouldn’t allow his deputy Lawrie Leslie to play. They were within their rights (Leslie wasn’t in the or­iginal squad), but it set a tone. So the Scots had to give Dunfermline’s Eddie Connachan his first cap, and an­other to Hugh Robertson of Dundee after their first-choice wingers Alex Scott and Davie Wilson also drop­ped out. Instead of a regular outside-right, they brought in Ralph Brand of Rangers, a prolific striker who hadn’t played on the wing for years.

Despite all the sellotape and scissors, Scotland came close to winning the match in normal time. Ian St John, having his best ever game for the national team, scored with two headers from free-kicks, the first from Bax­ter’s chip, the second after Brand had crossed from near the corner flag. Coming just two minutes after Hledik’s headed equaliser, it should have deflated the Czechoslovaks. Instead there was always the feel­ing they were going to turn things around, and when Scher­er finally got one on target it beat Connachan from the edge of the area. Czechoslovakia needed only a draw to reach the finals (thanks to their superior goal average in the group games) so Scot­land could have done with Law’s last-minute shot going in instead of just over the bar.

Extra time, and still no luck. Within minutes, White “was whacking a mag­nificent shot against the junction of post and crossbar”, and a few heads probably went down. When Caldow failed to cut out a cross, Masopust cleverly put in Pospichal to make it 3-2, and the Scots were never going to score twice after that. Kvasnak, who’d been getting up people’s noses all day, rubbed the salt in from 20 yards. Scotland didn’t qualify again till 1974, and with players who weren’t a patch on these.

The 1961 vintage wouldn’t have looked out of place in the finals. Baxter and White were just about the most skilful midfield pairing Scotland ever had. Law was one of the greatest all-round strikers of all time, already developing his game with Torino. St John, a mobile centre-forward, had just joined Liverpool, whose for­tune he was about to make. And the full-backs were international class.

So why the defeat, by players who weren’t exactly household names over here? Well, that was partly be­cause most of the households knew sod all about world football. Czechoslovakia had some of the very best play­ers in Europe. Masopust went on to become European Footballer of the Year that season, Popluhar was one of the best centre-halves of his generation and fellow baldie Schrojf had an inspired finals tournament until the final. Kucera, winning only his second cap, was a talented find up front.

The missing players caught up with Scotland, esp­ecially their wingers, who might have exposed Hledik and Tichy, both “uneasy against speed”. Robertson, who got little help from Law, won only this one cap, and Brand simply shouldn’t have been there. Above all, Dave Mackay had been injured while playing for Tottenham against Feyenoord in the European Cup.

Of the terrifying ball-winners who could also use the ball, Mackay was just about the greatest of all time. Tottenham won the Double because he was employed as minder to John White and Danny Blanchflower. If he’d been here at Heysel, Jelinek might have thought twice about the early foul that was probably part of the plan. White “thereafter intruded as rarely as possible in this hurly burly” according to contemporary reports.

In Mackay’s absence, Czechoslovakia won the fight for the right to party. According to the headline in one Scottish daily, Czechs Concentrate on Coarse Tackling, and there was a national moan about their bodychecking, their tackling from behind, and their crippling of Baxter, who was “provoked beyond endurance” and might have been sent off for lunging at Kvasnak after he had charged first at St John and then at Brand as they interpassed.

But someone’s looking for excuses here. British football at the time wasn’t made up of too many gentle souls. Caldow was a scary tackler, Ian Ure couldn’t spell prisoners, and when St John was thumped in the chest by Tichy it was because he’d gone steaming into the goalkeeper. And there was much more to Czechoslovakia’s play than basic aggro. The Eng­lish press called the match “spirit and fibre against clinical craft” and men­tioned “the Czechs’ skill, icy control and stamina”, paying them a compliment I hadn’t expected by comparing their game, “full of unexpected angles”, to the Hungarians of the early Fifties. No won­der they went on to reach the World Cup final. If Kucera hadn’t been injured just before the tournament and Schrojf had­n’t had a nightmare against that superannuated Brazilian team, they might ev­­en have won the whole thing.

But that’s not why this was a significant match. Czechoslovakia matched Scot­land for skill, but the English press agreed that the size of their players was crucial. With the Heysel pitch heavy after rain, a Scottish paper told us they “do not disguise their dislike of the present conditions. They would prefer a much firmer playing surface.”

In fact, it was Scotland who came off worse. White, Baxter, Law, St John, Brand were small or slight or both and although Paddy Crerand was feisty enough (he had been sent off in the qualifier in Bratislava), he was also notoriously slow. With Baxter “leaving greater gaps in the Scottish defence than even he is accustomed to do” and Law not using the ball well enough (he was still only 20), Scotland’s midfield couldn’t cope with Maso­pust, Pluskal and the leggy evils of Kvasnak, although it took extra time to prove it.

In the end, it’s a landmark game because it was play­ed at a time when an era that emphasised attack and al­most fragile skills was being replaced by some­thing more ironclad, with bigger thighs. Even so, even with­out some important players, Scotland came with­in a few minutes of postponing the trend. With Brown, Wil­son and Mackay returning, they might even have done quite well in the finals. Like reaching the second round for once.

From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month

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